The Glucose Economy

hacking-bacteria-fuel-ecoli-670In the long search to find alternatives to fossil fuels and industrial processes that produce tons of waste, several ideas have been forward. These include alternative energy – ranging from solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal – additive manufacturing, and cleaner burning fuels. All of these ideas have begun to bear some serious fruit in recent years thanks to ongoing research and development. But looking to the long term, it is clear that a complete overhaul of our industrial economy is needed.

That’s where more ambitious ideas come to the fore, ideas like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and what’s known as the “Glucose Economy”. Coined by Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American physicist who also had the honor of serving as the 12th Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama, this concept calls for the development of an economic model that would replace oil with high-glucose alternative fuels.

110302_steven_chu_ap_328Chu conceived of the idea while working as a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In short, the plan calls for fast-growing crops to be planted in the tropics – where sunlight is abundant – converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer). The resulting glucose and cellulose would then be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics.

As expected, this would render the current system of converting oil into gasoline and plastics – a process which produces immense amounts of carbon dioxide through processing and burning – obsolete. By comparison, glucose fuels would burn clean and produce very little in the way of chemical by-products, and bioplastics would be far more resilient and eco-friendly than regular plastics, and not just because they won’t cause a terrible disposal and waste problem (see Garbage Island).

David-Benjamin-and-the-future-of-architecture-01Another benefit of the this new model is the economic development it will bring to the tropical regions of the world. As far as production is concerned, those regions that stand to benefit the most are Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia. These regions are already seeing significant economic growth, and a shift like this would ensure their continued growth and development (not to mention improved quality of life) for many generations  to come.

But above and beyond all that is the revolutionary potential that exists for design and manufacturing, with architects relying on specially-designed software to create multi-material objects fashioned in part from biomass. This unique combination of biological processes, computer-assisted design (CAD), and human intelligence is looking to trigger a revolution in manufacturing and construction, with everyday materials to buildings created from eco-friendly, structurally sound, biomaterials.

bio-buildingOne such architect is David Benjamin, a computational architect and principal of the New York-based practice The Living. Together with his collaborators, Benjamin is conducting experiments with plant cells, the latest of which is the production of xylem cells – long hollow tubes plants use to transport water. These are computer modeled and grown in a Cambridge University lab and studied to create materials that combine the desired properties of different types of bacteria.

In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed. And beyond The Living Thing, there are also initiatives like the Living Foundries Program, a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production.

1394231762-re-making-manufacturing-united-statesNot only would this shave decades off the development process, but also hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s more, Benjamin claims it could take only 8 to 10 years to see this type of biotechnology enter commercial production. Naturally, there are those who oppose the development of a “glucose economy” as advocated by Chu. Beyond the proponents of fossil fuel energy, there are also those advocate nationally self-sufficient resources bases, rather than foreign dependence.

To these critics, the aim of a future economy should be energy independence. In their view, the glucose economy is flawed in that it merely shifts energy dependence of nations like the US from the Middle East and OPEC to the tropics, which could create a whole new slew of geopolitical problems. However, one cannot deny that as alternatives go, Chu’s proposal is far preferable to the current post-peak oil model of frakking, tar sands, natural gas, and coal.

bio-building1And it also offers some new and exciting possibilities for the future, where building processes like additive manufacturing (which is already making inroads into the construction industry with anti-gravity 3D printing, and the KamerMaker House) would be supplemented by using “biohacked” bacteria to grow structures. These structures would in turn be composed of resilient materials such as cellulose and organic minerals, or possibly carbon nanotubes that are assembled by organic processes.

And the amount of money, waste, energy and lives saved would be immense, as construction is currently one of the most dangerous and inefficient industries on the planet. In terms of on the job accidents, it causes some 10,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries a year in the US alone. And in terms of resource allocation and money, construction is labor intensive, produces tons of waste, and is almost always over budget.

hacking-bacteria-bio-light-670Compared to all that, a system the utilizes environmentally-friendly molecules and materials, enhances growing operations, fostered greater development and economic cooperation, and leads to a safer, cheaper, less wasteful construction industry seems immensely preferable. And it does offer a solution of what to do about two major industries that are ailing and in desperate need of modernization.

Boy, it feels like a long time since i’ve done a conceptual post, and the topics do appear to be getting more and more serious. Can anyone recall when I used to do posts about Cool Ships and Cool Guns? Yeah, me too, vaguely. Somehow, stuff like that seems like a far cry from the Internet of Things, Interstellar Travel, O’Neill Cylinders, Space Elevators, and timelines of the future. I guess this little blog of mine has been growing up in recent years, huh?

Stay tuned for more conceptual posts, hopefully something a little lighter and fluffier next time 😉


The Future is Here: The Anti-Gravity 3D Printer

anti-grav3d2Three-dimensional printing is without a doubt one of the greatest growth industries of the 21st century. And yet, surprisingly enough, there are those who seem to think that there is room for improvement when it comes to current concepts and designs. Two such individuals are Petr Novikov and Saša Jokic, a group of architecture students who recently began interning at the Joris Laarman Lab in Amsterdam. While there, they came up with a revolutionary method for 3D printing that reboots the concept!

It’s called Mataerial, a new and patented process where polymers are squeezed from a nozzle similar to how bakers squeeze icing from a tube to frost a cake, except there’s a robot involved. Ultimately, their concept was based on the fact that all conventional printing works with layers, which they considered grossly inefficient. Not only do such methods require the presence of a support structure, they also take additional time, materials, and increase the risk of damage if the object is removed from its support structure.

anti-grav3d1As Novikov explains:

The material that comes out of the nozzle is still kind of viscous–It’s not a liquid already but its not a solid material, so what we wanted to do is make it solid the same exact moment it comes out of the nozzle. And that’s the hardest part. Because if it solidifies before it comes out of the nozzle, then its going to make a clog… but if it solidifies after it leaves the nozzle, than its going to be weak and fall down.

The key was to find two liquid polymers that, when mixed, quickly harden, which allows for mid-air solidification. They’re calling the resulting method “Anti-Gravity Object Modeling,” since the material’s just-in-time solidification eschews the need for any sort of support structure. The new method is exciting for a number of reasons. The first is scale, in that this method could be adapted for manufacturing large and well as small scale objects easily.

anti-grav3dDepending on the size of nozzle used, the technology could be used to print materials and objects that are on the scale of millimeters (like components for consumer electronics), 3D models (the kinds that are printed by standard professional printers), or larger objects such as furniture or even parts used in large-scale architectural construction. Basically, anything from the tiniest object to the largest structure could be created by robots equipped with specialized nozzles and Mataerial printers.

But perhaps most exciting is the possibility that this new method would be able to print objects in low or even zero gravity. Given NASA’s recent interest in building a Moon base using 3D printing, such a process could come in mighty useful. Already, the technology known as “sintering” has been considered for the purposes of building a Lunar settlement, but given its “anti-gravity” application, the Mataerial process just might have a shot at winning some lucrative contracts.

In fact, Navikov indicates that they considered the possibility and put it to the test. As he indicated: “We did an investigation and we are pretty sure that this could be used as 3-D printer in zero gravity.” Did you get that NASA? Anyway to make this technology work with regolith? Regardless, it sure could be useful here on planet Earth!